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Horse voices – listen!


la Prom', looking east

Nice, you understand, is a big city. It is by no means a horse-friendly town. Yet there is a man who rides his elderly bay mare in the city. His name is Gérard Juttin, and he is – unbelievably for those who’ve seen him – in his 80s. Occasionally he rides along the Prom’ and down the wide pathway leading down to the Plage du Centenaire. At the base is a patch of sand whose margins are engulfed by the surrounding gallets – the large grey pebbles that are as much a local feature as socca or pan bagnat. Impossible for a horse to negotiate such terrain, of course – so that patch of sand, just wide and deep enough to permit a horse to roll in, is a little bit of horse heaven and possibly compensation for the horse being unable to reach the sea, which so many horses love and which is so good for them.
Out on a recent foray to the Cours, I passed cavalier and mount treading their stately way down the ramp. Irresistible! So I made my way down to the beach in their wake to ask if I could talk to the horse.  Talk? ‘Dire un petit coucou’ or say ‘hello’ – the same thing.  Odd locution, really, when what one is really doing mostly is touching. And touch I did. But, as always, I talked to the horse. They listen. For a horse, part of getting to know you via your odour and the quality of your touch is the tone and timbre of your voice. So I murmured reassuring friendly idiocies at the horse and she paid attention, ears flickering. Anyone who knows horses can tell you that they will often respond as much to voice as to physical commands such as to change rein. They can read your emotions, horses, knowing you through your true feelings – so your voice plays a large part, too.

“Ah, I should have taken off your saddle,” said the cavalier, gently apologetic as he rose and moved towards her. “Poor Chouchoune, you’re having to wait for me, aren’t you?”
Of course, she wasn’t free to roll in the sand with the saddle in place. I stood at her head, holding the reins while he undid the girths and slipped off the saddle. I moved to her nearside and balled a fist, using it to gently knead her neck. A gesture she enjoyed, rewarding me by reciprocating with equine affection: the variety where they wipe their faces on you – lovely (but marginally preferable to the one where they vigorously head-butt you or drool semi-digested grass down your neck)!
“Chouchoune” crooned the cavalier fondly – the word a name and endearment combined – as his horse bent slowly to the ground, rolled cautiously onto her back and … luxuriated, eyes closed in bliss. Her ears twitched, her eyes opened and she watched him (horses have excellent peripheral vision). You could tell at all times she was keenly aware of his presence, his voice, both commanding yet infinitely soothing.

Voices are crucial in so many ways. Even when you cannot hear them, they leap off the page or the screen, clamouring to be heard. How you write is you. ‘Le style, c’est l’homme même’, said Buffon (1707-1788) – and he’s right. Whatever you say, however you say it, is expressive of you. And whoever listens or reads will either like your voice or not.  A voice which sounds false, harsh or in some way antipathetic can ruin even the most meticulously marshalled argument or ravishing description. Delivery or accent themselves aren’t handicaps: good content will make itself heard, prevailing over the dullest of monotones or the most distracting of intonations. No, it is the tone and style of this mode of self-expression. And it is intensely personal so, aside from grammatical or linguistic considerations, a voice simply is itself: you either like it or not.

But a really good voice, true to itself, is compelling – and carries the unmistakeable stamp of sincerity.  Other voices repel, discordant due to underlying emotions which threaten or carry the jarring tones of inauthenticity. In such cases, the listener has the sense of the speaker adopting a posture or pose, of constructing drama as a personal showcase.  Rather than creating whole beings from their imagination, the inauthentic voice is dramatising him- or herself. And even if it doesn’t immediately sound that way, underlying it is self-righteousness or even arrogance – certainly self-centredness.  It is those features, combined with the factor of unreality, of insincerity, that makes so many writers, actors and singers unappealing. To some, that is –  they are bound to strike others as attractive. And why not? This is all personal, after all.  Some prefer the relatively superficial; they simply won’t – or can’t – plumb depths, and who’s to say they should? But who’s to say they merit more than cursory attention?

Humpty Dumpty by Tenniel (Through the Looking Glass, 1872)

Insincere and inaccurate utterances are revealing: clearly identifiable as ignorant and devoid of integrity. Robbed of credibility, the inauthentic voice has no meaning. I can’t help thinking that voices which speak without discernible sincerity in their desire to communicate are always a dead giveaway, one way or another. Sooner or later, the speaker will be found out, the words discredited and the audience lost – much as for Humpty Dumpty.  All of the people cannot be fooled all of the time.
Voices are extremely powerful. Handle with care – just as Monsieur Juttin handles Chouchoune.

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